By Erik Engle for VolleyballMag.com
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Things had been building the past couple of seasons at Cal Poly as Sam Crosson tried to resurrect a once-prominent NCAA women’s college-volleyball program.
And then the sixth-year coach got a nice present this past offseason in the form of UCLA transfer Torrey Van Winden. Now the Mustangs are riding a program-record 12-match winning streak, sitting atop the Big West Conference standings, and hoping for the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.
“We were really young three to four years ago,” said Crosson, who took over a program in shambles when he got to San Luis Obispo before the 2012 season.
“We knew it was going to be a build. Just based on kinda where things were when I first got here, even two years before that.”
Family ties have helped fueled the surge as the Mustangs stand 17-2 overall, 7-0 in the Big West.
Start with Van Winden, the 6-foot-3 sophomore outside hitter from Napa who was a first-team All-Pac-12 player last season. She leads Cal Poly in hitting with 299 kills (4.75 per set) while hitting .349, is averaging 2.48 digs, has 17 aces and 37 blocks, four solo.
Next up is her sister, 6-1 junior outside Adlee. The other Van Winden is second in kills (238, 3.78 per set), leads with 23 aces, also has exactly 256 digs and has 25 blocks, nine solo.
Their mother, the former Kelly Strand, was an All-American outside for Cal Poly.
And the ties don’t end there.
Taylor Nelson, a 6-foot-senior setter, is the daughter of the former Vera Pendergast, who was a setter for Strand on Cal Poly’s 1984 and 1985 NCAA Tournament teams.
Taylor Nelson, from Granite Bay, just northeast of Sacramento, is averaging 12.22 assists, has 55 kills and is hitting .398, and also has 144 digs and 26 blocks, five solo.
“Its funny, because there was an article saying this is the best start Cal Poly’s had since 1985, and that was the year our moms were here,” Nelson said. “They said ‘Oh, you’re catching up to us. Got some big shoes to fill.’ ”
Kelly Van Winden and Vera Nelson remained close after their time with the Mustangs and even go on an annual “girls night out” with several other former teammates every year. Because their daughters are so close in age, they’ve also been close since they were all children.
“We’ve grown up forever hearing our moms’ stories since we were little about their days of playing in Mott Gym and “Mott magic” and all of their stories at Cal Poly,” Taylor Nelson said. “I think we always knew we wanted to come here, and I think once I committed, Adlee knew she was coming.”
According to Crosson, the maturity of the large freshman class in 2014 allowed the team to take on more “project players” that were taller and more athletic, but less refined in the fundamentals of the game.
Of the seven freshmen that joined the team in 2014, only Nelson, senior middle blocker Savannah Niemen (136 kills, 15 aces, 42 blocks) and senior outside hitter Raeann Greisen (156 kills, 32 digs) have stuck around through their final year of eligibility. After being thrust into key roles so early in their careers, the group of seniors was forced to develop strong leadership skills that are paying-off now for the Mustangs.
Several players from that group were thrown into the starting lineup, perhaps before they were entirely ready to face collegiate-level competition.
“They all came from very successful high school and club programs but there’s a difference, obviously, when you get to college,” Crosson said. “There’s a bit of a transition period and it took us a couple of years to get into that.”
Crosson was hired a after a tumultuous 2011 Cal Poly season.
The university fired former head coach Jon Stevenson four matches into the season after an investigation regarding alleged sexual harassment toward his players was made public. Caroline Walters — who has been with the team for nine years and is now associate head coach — served as an interim head coach as Cal Poly finished 12-17. Stevenson died the following June after the Los Angeles County coroner determined he took multiple prescription drugs.
Crosson said he had a plan from the beginning. In 2012, Cal Poly things bottomed out as the Mustangs finished 4-26. In 2013 they were 12-17. Before the 2014 season, Crosson said he made a slight change to his recruiting approach that would turn out to have a big impact on the Mustangs.
“We looked at where we were from a physical standpoint, really against Hawaii and Long Beach who have been finishing first and second (in the Big West) the past couple of years,” Crosson said.
“They’re taller, they’re a little more athletic at the net, they have a bigger block, so we tweaked a little bit of what we were looking at, in terms of recruits, and tried to start looking at the taller kid or the better athlete that maybe we need to train a little bit more.”
It began to pay off, albeit slowly.
In 2014, Cal Poly finished 9-17, 4-12 in conference play, losing six of its last seven matches.
Adlee Van Winden arrived in 2015 and made an immediate impact. She was the Big West Freshman of the Year and earned first team all-conference honors after posting a team-high 391 kills.
“I think since I’ve been here we all as a collective group have just worked super, super hard,” Adlee Van Winden said. “We spent our summers here, we dedicated literally our whole lives to volleyball.”
The Mustangs were 19-8, 11-5 in the Big West in 2015 and last year finished 18-9, 11-5.
And then Torrey Van Winden joined the team.
“I knew that if I came here it wasn’t going to be a team that was going to roll over and accept being in just the Big West,” she said. “We wanted more, we wanted success, we wanted intensity and I think that we’ve proven that we can do that.”
What’s more, the Mustangs are 26th in the latest NCAA RPI and this season have lost only to Washington and Oregon of the Pac-12.
Among their victories are season-opening sweeps over High Point and Dayton, both leading their respective conferences, a five-set win over current AVCA No. 21 Wichita State, and league wins over Hawai’i and Long Beach State.
Up next is CSUN, which visits Friday, followed by a rematch Saturday with Long Beach. There’s a lot of volleyball to be played, but clearly getting to the NCAA Tournament is a realistic goal.
“It’s a lot of pressure but I have faith that this team works harder than whoever we’re gonna face,” Torrey Van Winden said. “The intensity is always there and we’re ready to make an upset. We’ve been preparing ourselves all season.”
“I think the thing that’s different this year is it’s always been like we can win a conference championship, but I think now we know we will,” Taylor Nelson said. “We want to not only make it to the tournament, but make a statement and make a run in the tournament.”
It happened before.
Cal Poly made the NCAA Tournament from 1981-89, getting into the third round in 1982, 1985 and 1989. There was a 10-year drought before the Mustangs were back in 1999. They made NCAA appearances in 2002, 2006 and 2007, getting into the third round in 2007. But that was 10 years ago.
“I think if we continue our goal of getting better every single day in practice, I think we will be able to have a good chance at keeping this undefeated run in conference hopefully gaining some momentum into the tournament,” Adlee Van Winden said. “A lot of us are putting in extra time, just trying to constantly get better.”
Nelson is convinced she’s right.
“It’s taken a lot of work. It was hard and we’ve had a lot of people not make it through all four years but we’re so happy we stuck it out because now we’re getting the benefits of it,” Nelson said.
“It’s just amazing to see the turnaround of where we came from freshman year.”